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Monday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Love On The Ground" (Rivette, France, 1984)

“[O]ne of the drawbacks of minor Rivette,” Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his own review of this disc in the Summer 2008 issue of Cinemascope, “is that…you can’t recommend it to skeptics with any firm hope that they’ll ever get around to seeing the major stuff as a result. True, that. My Lovely Wife’s introduction to Rivette was by way of 1981's Le Pont du Nord, a sometimes intriguing but ultimately entropic cinematic Chutes and Ladders game notable for being the sole teaming of Bulle Ogier and her daughter Pascale, who would die suddenly in 1984 at the age of 26. Extra-diegetic sympathy aside, the wife did not much care for the picture, and it took a fair amount of wheedling to get her to agree to see Celine et Julie vent a bateau, which did the trick. Although I have yet to get her to sit down for Paris Nous Appartient.
I’d feel pretty confident showing a skeptic this 1984 film though, not just because, unlike Le Pont du Nord,  it offers a genuine (or perhaps I should say "genuine") conclusion to its knotty, discursive narrative. It’s not quite the rabbit Rivette pulls out of the hat for Celine at Julie, but it’s satisfying and apt. Keith Uhlich’s observation that the film ultimately possesses “all the interior profundity of a whiffle ball” notwithstanding, Love offers up a variety of pleasures, from the always tonic assuredness of Rivette’s mise-en-scene to its illuminations of the film’s two lead characters—or rather I should say its two lead actresses: Jane Birkin and Geraldine Chaplin.
Birkin and Chaplin play Emily and Charlotte, two members of an acting trio we first see doing "apartment theater."  With a small audience watching from the hall, they enact a bedroom farce…only their male partner, Silvano (Facundo Bo) is dropping lines and improvising like mad, to the point of swigging from the bottle of actual J&B he wrests out of Birkin’s grocery bag. After the performance, the trio is enlisted by one Clemont Roquemare (Jean-Pierre Kalfon of L’Amour Fou), the aristocratic playwright whose work they’ve been mauling without clearance. But he’s not angry; no, instead he wants the three to rehearse and perform a new piece, working out of his dottily decorated mansion a little outside Paris.
Subbing for Celine et Julie’s James-inspired “House of Fiction,” then, we have a House of Theater. It contains a an enigmatic, possibly supernatural ameneusis (Virgil, played by Laszlo Szabo). The character, who comes off as a comic variant of  Heurtibise in Cocteau’s Orphee, flirts with both Charlotte and Emily, confiding to the former that he’s translating Hamlet into Finnish (a prophecy of Kaurismaki’s 1987 Hamlet Goes Business?!?) and tending to the latter when she is wounded during a particularly intense rehearsal. There’s also the jealous, sniping Eleonore (Sandra Montaigu) and the disillusioned illusionist Paul (Andre Dussollier, most recently seen here in Resnais’ Private Fears in Public Places).  The house is also haunted by someone who’s not dead: Beatrice, beloved of both Paul and Clemont. Paul’s magic act hasn’t been the same since she ditched him. Then there are various mirrors showing what’s not really there—maybe even the future!—and an empty room from which the sound of the sea, or that of an aviary, emanates. (Peculiarly enough, the characters named Virgil and Beatrice never really interact...)
As Emily and Charlotte rehearse a scenario drawn from life, fissures in their friendship surface, and their own desires and frustrations also bubble up. (Interestingly enough, Clemont’s scenario expands to the point that he contemplates enlisting actresses to play the roles of Emily and Charlotte—an anticipation of  Synechdoche, New York. Wonder if SNY writer/director Charlie Kaufman has seen this picture.)
One particular revelation for this viewer was Geraldine Chaplin. Her angular, almost severe features have inspired a number of directors to cast her as an edgy neurotic—recall Nashville’s possibly deranged “BBC reporter” Opal. Here, in what’s clearly a very improvisational working climate, she’s permitted to soften, be more herself, and exhibits not just a keen intelligence but a playful and surprisingly sexy side. (As for evidence of the improvisational climate, there’s the way she and Birkin frequently break into English, and an admission from Charlotte that she’s always been afraid of houses full of empty rooms: “My father had a house like this in Carmel, California.” Sort of—Charlie Chaplin and family frequently summered in Carmel before he quit the U.S. in 1952, when Geraldine was eight. There’s more evidence than that, of course; these examples particularly tickled me.)
Rivette’s film is reproduced quite handsomely—and in its director preferred 168-minute version (he was obliged to deliver a 125-minute release cut) on this British-issue disc from Bluebell, although as Rosenbaum notes, its jacket copy is thoroughly inane. I particularly like its sole blurb: “‘Controversial!’—New York Times”. Said characterization appears nowhere in Janet Maslin’s (positive) 1984 review of the film.

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